20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Silent - 1916)
Starring: Allen Holubar, Edna Pendleton, Wallace Clarke
Director: Stuart Paton
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Plot: A French scientist leads an expedition sent to find and destroy a gigantic, menacing sea monster. He discovers instead a dark, vengeful anti-hero that controls the "monster" and complications ensue. This film combines plot elements of Verne's original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island, then adds its own subplot involving the origin of Captain Nemo that ties everything together. It goes without saying that this film stays nowhere near the original storyline, but it's technical achievements are still quite profound.
The third motion picture (American Mutoscope & Biograph 1905, Georges Méliès 1907) based on Jules Verne's Vingt Mille Lieues sous Les Mers from his legendary Voyages Extraordiniares, Universal Film Mfg. Co's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) is noteworthy for the technically astonishing underwater photography of John Ernest Williamson's Submarine Film Corporation. Produced by Carl Laemmle over a two-year period in the Bahamas, at Universal's Leonia, New Jersey and Universal City, California facilities, for a reported cost of $500,000 (roughly $100,000,000 today). The technology of Williamson's "Photosphere" observation chamber, used to film encounters with undersea creatures, rivals the fictional science of Verne's novel and helped establish the fantasy-horror legacy of Universal Studios.
This screen adaptation of Jules Verne's novel seems to have been timely. Two recent innovations changed the story's relevancy. The film was released in 1916, when German U-Boats were showing the effectiveness of submarines in war, including the sinking of the Lusitania. Verne's science fiction had only recently become more fully realized. Additionally, deep sea traveling was to be exploited by science. Indeed, some of the best sequences in this film are just of fish and sharks in the marine gardens as the characters look through Captain Nemo's magic window. Another invention, motion-picture underwater photography by the Williamson brothers allowed for Verne's fiction to be more fittingly portrayed with cinema. Certainly, this was a remarkable effect for the medium in 1916, and the underwater scenes remain the best parts of this film, with the exception of the cheesy octopus attack.